Planning Your Next Vehicle Upfit…Do-It-Yourself or Outsource?

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Vehicle upfit

The process of turning an otherwise “plain” vehicle into one that can respond to emergencies is known as upfitting. What began over one hundred years ago with the addition of a warning light and siren now includes nearly every piece of equipment in the vehicle. Upfitting a modern law enforcement vehicle requires extensive product knowledge, planning, research, and logistics. Deciding whether to complete this task in-house or turning it over to an upfitter requires careful consideration.

Deciding what needs to be installed on a vehicle requires a great deal of planning and research. Knowing what type of equipment is needed, make and model of the vehicle, its functionality, any specifications on how to install, and how to obtain it are all factors in planning your upfit. Other questions that may come up during your research could include how many vehicles to build? What manufacturer of warning lights are you going to use? Partnering with an upfitter creates an opportunity to streamline the process and reduce potential pitfalls.

In planning your upfit, consideration of what equipment your fleet currently has and whether you want to continue with the same type is one of the first decisions to be made. The end users should be familiar with the functionality of the components and comfortable with the locations where they are installed.

One of the first items to consider is “what is this vehicle’s purpose?” Creating a mission-specific upfit is essential to the success of this vehicle for years to come. If the primary function of the vehicle is patrol, then specific components relevant to that mission should be installed on it. Other mission-specific vehicles include K9, traffic enforcement, SWAT, Administrative, and other highly specialized upfits such as drone operations or crime scene. These require specific components that an experienced upfitter will be familiar with.

Over the years, the challenges that come with upfitting a law enforcement vehicle have changed. Keeping up to date with this information can be a challenge in itself, whether you are dealing with vehicle supply chain issues coming from General Motors, Ford Motor Company, or Stellantis, or using a civilian, also known as retail, vehicle for law enforcement work instead of police purpose-built vehicles like the Chevrolet Tahoe Police Pursuit Vehicle (PPV). Another notable change in the industry has been the introduction of the full control siren system like Whelen’s Core or SoundOff’s Blueprint, which sometimes requires complex programming.

Wiring harnesses have been around for years, as upfitters use them to standardize their wiring. However, with the introduction of the Core and Blueprint, the use of wiring harnesses has become more common because of the number of connections, additional wires, and connectivity to the vehicle using the ODB connection or OEM-supplied wiring. Knowing what changes have been made year over year to your vehicle of choice is another challenge that requires research and conversations with OEM reps and the dealership through which you are purchasing the vehicle.

Whether your upfit is done in-house or by an upfitter, you must understand if your equipment still fits and works the same way in your vehicle. As the vehicle changes, so does the equipment.  A good example of this is that you may have purchased a storage box to fit in the back of a 2020 Chevrolet Tahoe PPV and now you want this to fit into a 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe PPV. Since the model year has changed, meaning it is a new body style, additional equipment will need to be purchased to install the same storage box. In this case, a rear tray platform must be purchased because of this model year change.

Another important factor to remember when determining what equipment you want to use is compatibility. While using two or three different manufacturers for lighting is typically not much of a problem, mixing prisoner transport equipment with storage boxes may not work. This is a challenge that typically gets overlooked until the installation process has already started. Do your research to understand if the storage box you want from one manufacturer will fit with the cargo barrier of another. It is recommended when dealing with prisoner transport equipment that you purchase all the products from one manufacturer to ensure they fit together properly, and the doors close tightly. When installing a gun rack on the front partition, keep in mind the length and width of your console to make sure the officer can access the weapons quickly.

The ability to repurpose equipment from vehicles removed from service and used in the new upfit is often a question that comes up. While items such as radios, video systems, and computers can often be removed from an older unit, components that are specific to a vehicle make or model year are often not compatible with the vehicle being upfitted. Determining what can be used versus what needs to be purchased new is one of the most important decisions to be made during this process. Failure to recognize these specific challenges can cause significant delays in placing a new vehicle in service. Working with your upfitter to mitigate these potential issues can save valuable time and lead to a smooth process.

Upfitting in-house, or within the scope of the organization, is dependent on the availability of personnel to do the job and their level of competence in completing the work. Consideration should be given to whether the person tasked with the job has other responsibilities, their experience, and whether the agency has the logistical capability to tackle the upfitting process, in addition to the financial considerations of salary and benefits. Choosing an experienced and reputable upfitter is usually the most cost-effective choice.

When deciding on an upfitter, many factors come into play. These include proximity to the agency, past relationships, reputation, and their availability to meet your timeframe. Whether the upfitter can offer a turn-key solution that includes the purchase of the vehicle and delivery is a factor that many agencies consider.

If your decision is to hire an upfitter to build your vehicles, there are things you can do to ensure your experience goes well. The first is to go visit the upfitter’s facility, see how they build a law enforcement vehicle, and ask a lot of questions. Take your vehicle specifications with you and go over them with the upfitter. They may see a potential problem and have a quick and easy solution. Lastly, it is always a good practice to check references and understand the experience and longevity of the upfitter’s business. A good working relationship will always make the experience much easier and stress-free. As your relationship grows year after year, the upfitter will understand how you like your vehicles built and what your expectations are.

As you can see, planning your next upfit can take weeks to months to plan and produce, but understanding what you are dealing with, what questions to ask, and knowing the resources that you have available to you within the industry can make the process of upfitting a law enforcement vehicle a manageable task.

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